It must have been the wee hours of the morning. I was dreaming of a dawnless night. A world where eternal darkness prevailed. I dreamt that people were erecting a statue to nothingness. The statue was growing taller as the people at the base added more and more darkness…lumps of it. And there were multitudes just pouring in and adding more of that elemental darkness. The statue just fed on all that and kept growing towards a bewildered sky. There was no end in sight. I woke up to find that it was indeed dark outside. And there was a power outage. It is an unsettling feeling when your nightmare is the mirror image of what you wake up to. Unable to sleep anymore, I pondered over the dream. I asked myself, what is it about statues that people feel so compelled to erect one or pull another down? And what does either of these acts symbolize?
I thought of all the statues that I had seen or heard of. The ones that dot most major Indian intersections, grave in their expressions, pointing the way, standing still as pigeons come home to roost and we wind our way around their round-abouts. The inscriptions, if we care to read them, tell us some basic details and that’s that. But apart from their traffic regulating and homing pigeons (pun) value, statues are representations of legacies- of the person, of the ideology, of the administration and most importantly, of the motley group we put together under a common flag, currency and constitution- and optimistically call- the Nation.
The interestingly named Statue of Unity is what comes to mind when I list out the purposes a statue can be put to. One of the most polarizing statues to be erected in recent times, it marks the history of a great man. The then Chief Minister of Gujarat laid the foundation stone and the now Prime Minister of India inaugurated the completed statue. The statue is that of Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel. (Any irony is purely coincidental and exists only in the warped mind of the reader) Coming at a whopping cost of 2,989 crores, the statue has been constantly questioned on the basis of economics and civil rights. Built on tribal land, the statue has reduced those living in the area to being mere ‘occupiers’. The conflict began in the 1960s with the acquisition of the land for the now Sardar Sarovar dam- dams being all the rage as symbols of the rising India. The statue in question is three kilometres away from this dam. In 2013, the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited had to reacquire the land that encompassed six villages so as to put up a fence as the previous acquisition had lapsed because the land had remained with the original owners- the tribals for nearly 58 years.
The point being that decades down the lane, with so much of information and wherewithal being at our disposal, there are still people who are pushed out of the way on account of their being ‘backward’, ‘Tribal’, ‘reserved categories’ or ‘Bahujan’. There are battles raging in the forests of this country, in the hills and by the sides of rivers, between people whose only ancestry comes from these geographies and who know no other way of life or don’t want to know any other way of life and agencies who with their big machines and promises of education, hospitals, jobs and better housing promise a life that is more in sync with the rest of the country. In exchange, they ask for these forests, hills and rivers. Eventually, none of the promises are fulfilled. Because of the conflict between two thoughts one being ‘nothing is ever enough to fill the hole in your heart called home’, ‘this is not what we were promised’ and ‘these are tribals and this is way more than what they have seen, known or deserve’. Promises are abandoned half way.
Or not kept at all. Like those made in the most sacrosanct of documents in India. The Constitution. The Article 15 states that the state should not discriminate on the basis of the caste, religion, place of birth, sex and race and that no citizen shall be barred from access to public places on the basis of these parameters. Why I say these promises are not kept at all, is that while the Article 15 came into force in 1950, the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act came into force in 1989. A protective law comes into force only when there is a need for it. When the existing provisions are not deterrent enough. And our newspapers carry ample evidence that even these provisions are not nearly sufficient. I remember reading a case under the Prevention of Atrocities Act (POAA) filed by a high-ranking government official who claimed that upon his retirement, his subordinates sprinkled cow dung water on the premises of the offices and in the official car he used to travel by.
As per the POAA, is a crime to dump waste, excreta etc. on the premises of the person of the community. Through the ruling of this case, I learnt that cow dung is not excreta. Only human excreta is excreta. I now view cows with reinforced respect. This case was in 2012. There are other provisions of this Act that effectively tie its hands because one has to prevent its misuse. We are all honourable men.
Going back to the statutes…I mean statues, this is a bad time to be one. Especially if your history is rather dodgy and has involved exploiting poverty and discriminating against people. The Black Lives Matter movement that saw a nation-wide resonance diversified into pulling down statues of slave owners and confederate generals. In some cases, these statues were dumped in the nearest river or had George Floyd’s face projected on them. The call has been made to remove the statue of Theodore Roosevelt from the American Museum of Natural History. The statue has Roosevelt on a horse and standing on either side are a Black man and a Native Indian. Statues of Gandhi have faced opposition in many countries in Africa such as South Africa, Ghana and Malawi. His statue in America has been vandalised and London is set to review the placement of their statues of him. The past must be constantly reviewed and reparations must be made.
In 2018, two women and a man travelled from Maharashtra to Rajasthan to protest the sloganeering against BR Ambedkar and the ripping up of the Constitution by a group of people in Delhi. They travelled to Rajasthan to strike at the heart of the problem. The Rajasthan High Court has a statue of Manu, the lawmaker credited with the Chatur Varna system. They wanted to submit a memorandum to the Court asking for the removal of the statue which had been installed in 1989 by the Rajasthan Judicial Officers Association and funded by the Lions Club. Once, a full bench of Judges had ruled to relocate the statue, but the verdict was challenged by Dharmendra Acharya, a leader of the VHP. The case has dragged on. On that day, in an unexpected turn of events, the two women, Sheela Pawar and Kantabai Ahire climbed up the statue and smeared black paint over it. They were arrested, along with the man who had absconded and placed in custody for two weeks. They garnered support from different parts of the country but had to find the money to post their own bail. The case is still on in court. I suppose cow dung instead of paint might have yielded a different result.
Over the years, there has been a transatlantic solidarity building between the Anti-racist thoughts in America and the Bahujan movement in India. Apart from the vocabulary of protest that has been shared, there is also the systematic building of history in the form of parallel acts such as celebrating the Dalit History Month and constituting art oriented projects. There is a natural gravitation happening in India in terms of the dispossessed reaching out to each other with an aim to show solidarity. While the dangers of consolidation have also begun to be apparent, there are groups who are trying to keep their heads above the water.
This is best embodied in the way queer communities within the queer communities have articulated their modes of protests. While talking to our poet for this segment, Adhi, who identifies as gender queer and Dalit, told me that often, the discrimination they face is coloured with their being both Dalit and queer. The queer spaces have generally been occupied by the well-heeled, English-speaking queers who generally corner the speaking engagements, the funding, the media posse. But there is a section of the queer population who have voices that are just as urgent, with issues that are emergent and they need a space. These voices are inextricably linked to their identity that is inevitably defined by their Dalit-ness or their Muslim-ness.
There is a very vibrant discussion happening at this time about being queer and Dalit and queer and Muslim, queer and Tribal. My co-mentioning of these terms must not be seen as a means of yoking them together, rather as a means of illuminating the point of the need to acknowledge the shades of colours that populate the rainbow. It is also a means of discussing how the concentric circles of prejudice run in communities that are already subjected to prejudice in the first place. In the small towns, peri urban centres, villages of India, there is a mobilization happening within the unheard queer community. In the form of ‘cafes’ that are makeshift spots to have refreshments and relax, drop in centres, where members can connect with each other, half way houses, shelter homes, some owned, mostly rented. It is a struggle, but they are kept running to help people come, express themselves, live a little, drop by drop. There are those who go to these places just to wear a saree, dance, just to feel like themselves. These are working class queers. And mostly from the so-called lower spectrum of society. As with hetero-normative society, the queer society also tends to create strata based on caste or religion and often, these prejudices decide who has access to what avenue of articulation. This post is also a way of disabusing the notion of homogeneity that is often assumed with regard to queer communities. That they are all the same, it is one big orgy and that there is no caste in queer.
Take the case of Aroh Akunth, the founder and curator of the Dalit Queer Project a movement that is alive and prosperous on Instagram. A student of Ambedkar University, Delhi, they had to resort to Facebook to raise awareness on discrimination they faced on campus. It is ironic that this happened in a university named after Ambedkar. The need for the queer Bahujan to congregate and write themselves into the spaces of articulation becomes very urgent given that the community experiences high levels of precarity. These spaces are not out of the way, hidden ones. Rather, they are in-your-face, public spaces that they share with other members of the queer community. Pride Marches being one of them. the geographies of Pride marches are interesting as while seemingly presenting a united ideology of inclusiveness and acceptance, there is a lot of spatial politics being played out. The posters and slogans at these marches carry vital messages for class, caste and civil redressal.
In fact, the slogan Queer, Dalit and Proud made its way into popular imagination at the first Telengana Queer Swabhimana Walk, inaugurated by Kancha Ilaiah and later joined by Gogu Shyamala. It was the first of its kind to recognise the intersectionality of these struggles and to stake claim on the legacy of centuries of struggles by queer Dalits who have gone unsung. There is a hard look being taken at the history of queer movements in the country as many contest the ‘English speaking’ variety. There is some fact to this assertion as many point out that the struggles and protests on the ground were led by Dalit Bahujan queers who were often at the receiving end of police brutality on account of poverty, lack of education and absence of agency. The problems of being queer come only later. The movement in Telengana was reflected at the Bengaluru Pride where they linked the Pride to the issue of Beef Eating, the Kolkata Pride where the likes of Manoranjan Byapari talked about a section of well-connected people taking away the voices of the Other, the Chennai Pride where they had queer activists, feminists, anti-caste activists come in and speak about intersectionalities, the Delhi Pride where they gave a shout out to those affected by prejudice and violence, namely, Dalits, Muslims, women, advocates of free speech, rationalists and those voicing dissent. Where they carried posters of Queer Dalit and Proud.
Adarsh E, or Adhi, is also Queer, Dalit and Proud. A Native of Kozhikode, Kerala, they are pursuing a post graduate degree in Malayalam at the Sree Shankaracharya University, Kalady. They are very attached to Queerhythm, an organisation that has done significant work in the queer circles in Kerala. Adhi believes that people can be made to listen to reason, that reconciliation is possible. They strongly feel that it is important to organize and engage in activism as it helps people to pool their resources and expand their horizons and outreach. They are someone with their ear to the ground as they work with people who are part of the grassroots movements. They had realised their gender queerness quite early on in life. Hailing from a small town, acceptance was an issue and they had faced violence. They would not even step out of their class to relieve themselves as they feared assault. But they persisted with their education. They came to the university determined to present themselves as they were right from the beginning rather than come out gradually. It proved to be a good decision. They have a warm set of friends at the university.
Their poems reflect everyday concerns and talk intimately of love and its myriad manifestations. They basically write in Malayalam. The poems featured here are translated by their friend Arun A. I too have translated some of them. The challenge was to bring out the flow and flavour of their poems. The earthiness that some usages have in Malayalam may not really come through in English, thus, driving home the call for a strong regional presence in queer literature.
Maybe it’s time for monoliths to come tumbling down and cows to jump over the moon.
The art for this edition has been co-opted from the Facebook page of the British Council India and curated by the Queer Muslim Project for their Digital Pride Festival #prideathome being held from June 15 to 28, 2020. Featured in the painting are Dhrubo Jyoti, Akhil Kang and Dhiren Borisa as they speak at Delhi Pride 2015. They, along with Aroh are at the forefront of the Queer, Dalit and Proud conversations.
Sonya J. Nair